Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 156, August 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
 
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Prices Are Going Up… And It May Be A Good Thing

Take a good look around your shop, your kitchen, or your office and pick out any mundane thing and try to remember what you paid for it. As a benign and uncontroversial example, consider the coffee maker. On just one internet shopping site I found 33 different coffee maker models priced below $25 and another 15 models priced between $25 and $30. Let's examine one "middle of road" model, the Mr. Coffee 4-Cup Programmable.

Figure 3 - It almost defies credibility to imagine that this
coffee maker can be sold for only $19.99
This coffee maker has a glass carafe, makes 4 cups of coffee in each batch, has a digital clock, and a timer built-in so that you can set the machine up the night before and it will automatically turn itself on and brew your coffee the next morning, ready for your bleary-eyed first trip to the kitchen. If you get to the coffee maker a bit before it is finished brewing, don't worry, this machine also has a "drip-stop" feature so you can pour a cup while it is still brewing without making a mess. There are some other little features you might appreciate… a clear window allows you to see how much water you have added, an internal cord storage lets you hide any unused electrical cord, and the filter basket lifts out for easy cleaning. All of this for a cool $19.99.

Now think about that price… how can that be right?

I looked at coffee makers in a local discount store, and frankly had to marvel at how so much could be built and sold for a mere 20 bucks. Start with the plug, add the wire, then trace that into a housing that was injection molded in at least four primary parts. Those plastic molds cost a lot to make! Inside there is undoubtedly a chip, an LED screen, and an indicator light. And, of course, there is a metal plate that is wired to warm up and keep the coffee hot after brewing. All those parts have to be assembled, the final product then has to be tested, packaged, and shipped all the way from China, likely first to a master distributor, then to a sub-distributor, then to a retailer, and in the case of internet retailers, shipped once again to the customer. And let's not forget that paperwork has to be done and samples have to be sent to Underwriters Laboratory to get the necessary UL listing before the first sale can even take place. The little included instruction booklet has to be printed, too. And, along the way, the manufacturer and the retailer both have to make a profit. All of this for 20 bucks! Holy cow!

An 11.3 ounce container of generic coffee costs $4.14 in the supermarket and is advertised to produce 90 cups of coffee. That means you can drink 4 cups of coffee every day for three weeks for a mere 18 cents per day. If you amortize the cost of the coffee maker ($19.99/21 = $0.95) over that same three weeks, then add in a couple of cents for coffee filters, it means that your morning coffee will cost you about $1.15 a day for just three weeks, and after that, only about 20 cents a day, for as long as the coffee maker lasts. That is incredible!

Is it any wonder that 6 months, 9 months, or a year from now, when that $19.99 coffee maker craps out and brews its last cup, or when a fancier model with another bell or another whistle comes along, with hardly a thought you toss it in the garbage and buy another?

It is my contention that this unrealistically low pricing has set up some unrealistic expectations and some extremely negative side effects in our society. Most all of us have had a pretty good chuckle in the past few weeks over the "soda straw" crisis. In case you have been avoiding the news, the use of plastic soda straws will soon be seriously curtailed, if not eliminated completely. While history may record "Strawgate" differently, I wonder if the sheer absurdity of this latest "save the planet" hysteria might awaken us to bigger, more realistic, and more impactful issues.

In 2010, the latest year for which I could find verifiable data, 18.5 million coffee makers were sold in the U.S. If just half (and I would expect the number to be higher) of those sales were to replace a dead, dying, or older model coffee maker, that means that over 9 million coffee makers were put into landfills that year. I suspect the number is much higher… and I strongly suspect this dwarfs, by volume and weight, the contribution of plastic soda straws.

But there is a still bigger point to be made. The low relative cost of consumer items has led us to unrealistic expectations about the price/value relationship and steered us down a path of what I call the "disposability mentality." People may roll their eyes if they hear you spent $200 or more for a coffee maker. When we can purchase an 18 volt cordless drill for $38, or get one with a brand name we might actually recognize for just $49, is it any wonder that some people might balk at spending $320 for a Festool 18 volt drill? We've been spoiled by low prices. Cheap prices allow us to acquire a lot of "stuff," and if the "stuff" breaks, wears out, or we simply get tired of it, no problem… just toss the old and buy anew.

Forget for now the energy use and carbon contribution from manufacturing countless replaceable items that have driven this "disposability mentality," and merely imagine the volume of garbage added to our landfills from constantly throwing things away. Disposable razors are handy, but an old fashioned double edge razor lasts forever, requires only an occasional blade change, and shaves better… why do people buy a disposable razor, use it a few times and then throw away the whole thing? Simple… because it is cheap to do so. A can of foaming shave cream is handy, but after a few shaves the can is empty and goes in the landfill. A block of shaving soap and a brush takes an extra minute to whip up into a lather, and when the soap is gone, there is nothing left to throw in the garbage… just get a new bar of shaving soap. And, for you millennials that have never used anything but canned shave cream, the stuff you whip up from a bar is far better! Still, that aerosol shave cream is cheap and easy, and that cheapness is an allure in and of itself.

As disposable income has grown in the United States, the tendency to treat everything as disposable has grown as well. I know a guy who buys a new barbecue grill each Spring and cooks on it all Summer. Then, as the weather turns cold in the Fall, he puts the grill by the curb for the trash collector. He says cleaning a grill, buying a cover to protect it in the winter, and storing it is "just too much trouble."

You may find this incredible, and hard to believe, but for a lot of women (this is not a sexist comment, it just happens to be more of a "thing" with women, at least right now), the idea of buying clothes for "one-time wearing" has caught on. The advent of designer clothing deep-discount stores has made fashion cheap and readily available. Buy a skirt, shirt, or suit, wear it once or twice, then donate it to Goodwill or throw it away. A case can be made that it is cheaper than washing the clothes and re-wearing them several times, especially for a busy career person for whom washing clothes could be a serious waste of valuable time.

Since the end of World War II, Americans, along with most people in other high-GDP nations, have been raised on a steady diet of cheap and cheaper prices, predictable obsolescence, and regular replacement. A new car every few years keeps that industry humming, thus a new coffee maker every year is certainly not a stretch. Heck, even our personal relationships have suffered from our diminished expectations of permanence. First it was "no-fault" divorce, that led to a skyrocketing divorce rate, and now it is just "hooking up" without any commitment at all. If I'm not married to a car, or a coffee maker, why would I marry a person?

Figure 4 - Our very own "Sticks-In-The-Mud" author, Jim Randolph,
has had this coffee maker for more than 20 years. When the top
broke, he fashioned a new one from Plexiglas
Whether or not a trade war develops with China, I think there is little doubt that changes are coming. How will we react when the "cheap" 18 volt drill at the big box store costs $200? What will we do when the cheapest coffee maker costs $150? Will we give a bit more thought to the price/value relationship? I suspect so. And consider this not-so-often considered advantage to rising prices: At a higher price, there will be a higher end-user expectation of quality and longevity. Manufacturers will have to "step up." At the higher price point it will not be enough to change product color, claim advances in battery life, or include a few new accessories to entice us to buy a new model… there will have to be real, tangible, verifiable improvements in quality or features before we will toss out the old and bring in the new.

If the plastic bottles your favorite designer water is packaged in cost a dollar to make instead of a penny, your bottled water might cost $2 to $3 dollars… you can bet real money that people would refill sturdy containers from their tap and many less "disposable" bottles would find their way into the landfill. And when that little Mr. Coffee coffee maker costs $150, you can bet people will figure out how to take care of it, perhaps even repair it when it breaks, and keep it for a long time.

It seems "unnatural" and "counter-intuitive" to think that higher prices for the stuff we buy everyday would be a good thing… but it just might. If we could dispose of our disposability mentality, we could dispose of less stuff in landfills… and we could regain higher expectations for quality and serviceability in what we buy.

My expectation for my Festool tools is that they will last the rest of my life. I also expect that should one ever break, Festool can repair the tool or send me the part so I can fix it myself. I also expect that there will be no reason to replace my track saw, Domino machine, routers, or Festool drills unless there is some overwhelming advance in technology that makes a new tool so attractive that I can't resist it. And should that happen, my older Festool tool will certainly not go into a landfill… there will be a ready market for a still-working-well tool. In the overall value equation, this makes perfect sense and if you are concerned about the millions of tons of garbage going into landfills every year, it makes even more sense to spend more, invest wisely, and keep it forever.

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com


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